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Notable Nobel Prize Winners in Physics

a List of Nobel Prize winners in physics

(Editor’s note: Welcome to Bold’s series on the Nobel Prize, its winners, and their contributions. Read up on the notable winners in Economics here.)

a bust of some dude
Winning a Nobel Prize is tough. Winning one in physics is even tougher.

All the Nobel Prizes are considered special and a pinnacle of one’s lifetime achievements. However, of all of them, the Nobel Prize in Physics is considered among the most difficult to receive. The nomination and selection process by the Nobel Prize committee is the most arduous. In addition, these awards require that a theory or discovery be validated for an extended period of time. As such, the list of Nobel prize winners in physics tend to be recognized 20 or more years after their work. Because these awards are not given after one’s death, many physicists’ work fails to be considered despite the contributions. Thus, those who have received such recognition are among the more famous Nobel Laureates in physics over time.

The list of Nobel Prize winners in physics dates back to 1901, and since then, there have been a total of 221 recipients. Each year, the maximum number of awardees is set at three physicists, and only two works in physics may be considered. The award is given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for outstanding contributions to humankind in physics. All of the recipients therefore deserve mention for their scientific discoveries and theories. However, in an effort to highlight the prominence of this award, a select few can be showcased. The following a few of the more famous Nobel Prize winners in physics since its inception.

a nice List of Nobel Prize winners in physics
You might not recognize all the names on this list of Nobel Prize winners in physics, but you’ll recognize their works.
  • Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen – Nobel Prize Winner in Physics 1901

Wilhelm Röntgen was the very first on the list of Nobel Prize winners in physics. He studied cathode radiation where an electrical charge is applied to two metal plates in a gas-filled tube. His physics discovery, however, involved observing a faint light that was emitted when the charge was applied. This discovery turned out to be a previously unknown type of radiation, which was subsequently labelled x-rays. It was for his work with x-rays that landed him the first to be recognized as a famous Nobel Laureate in physics. Notably, this introduced a new field and many later discoveries involving x-rays.

  • Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel – Nobel Prize Winners in Physics 1903

Believe it or not, there have been only three women on the entire list of Nobel Prize winners in physics. Marie Curie was on this list and was also the first. She and her husband Pierre were both recognized in 1903 along with Henri Becquerel for their extensive work in radiation. Studying minerals and substances for radioactivity, they identified a mineral more radioactive than uranium. The subsequently extracted polonium and radium from the mineral. These were added to the list of radioactive elements as a result. Marie Curie as well as her cohorts continue to be recognized as three famous Nobel Laureates in physics.

  • Max Planck – Nobel Prize Winner in Physics 1918

This famous Nobel Laureate in physics is often referred to as the creator of quantum theory. In essence, Max Planck identified the inability to calculate the amount of electromagnetic radiation emitted by a particle when heated. Existing laws of physics failed to accurately determine these values. Thus, Planck proposed that radiation existed in quanta with specific energies. This advanced physics significantly by explaining the relationship between matter and energy at an atomic and subatomic level. This provided the foundation for many subsequent fields of study within physics for decades to come.

  • Albert Einstein – Nobel Prize Winner in Physics 1921

It might be assumed that Albert Einstein made the list of Nobel Prize winners in physics several times. However, he only did so in 1921 despite his reputation in science and leadership in scientific inquiry. He was able to show that sparks between metal electrodes increased when exposed to light. And he proved light was made up of quanta that had fixed energies at specific frequencies. However, a quantum of light had to have a threshold frequency in order for it to cause the release of an electron. This is how it enhanced sparks between electrodes. Einstein is perhaps one of the most famous Nobel Laureates in physics. But it was his work in theoretical physics and the photoelectric effect that ultimately gained him formal recognition.

  • Niels Bohr – Nobel Prize Winner in Physics 1922

While the electron and radioactivity were known at the turn of the 20th century, atomic structure was not. However, in 1913, Niels Bohr proposed atomic theory that was founded on quantum theory. He suggested the hydrogen atom had a dense nucleus around which electrons orbited. And if these electrons changed their orbital level, radiation was emitted. The validation of this theory in later years was enough to add his name to the list of Nobel Prize winners in physics. And in fact, most recognize Bohr as among the most famous Nobel Laureates in physics throughout its history.

famous Nobel Laureates in physics help us study atoms
Famous Nobel Laureates in physics include Curie, Einstein and Bohr.
  • Werner Heisenberg – Nobel Prize Winner in Physics 1932

As one of the more famous Nobel Laureates in physics, Werner Heisenberg is routinely responsible for the creation of quantum mechanics. In fact, he was nominated by Albert Einstein himself. Heisenberg expanded on Niels Bohr’s atomic theory to accommodate more complicated atoms and molecules. He did this by formulating a type of quantum mechanics using matrices. In essence, Heisenberg was able to demonstrate an uncertainty principle that stated knowing a particle’s position and velocity simultaneously had limits. Because this launched quantum physics research, he is considered among the top of the list of Nobel Prize winners in physics.

  • William Bradford Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Houser Brattain – Nobel Prize Winners in Physics 1956

In the mid-1940s, there was a desire to create smaller and more powerful amplifiers. Semiconductors was a burgeoning field that offers such potential with materials providing electrical conduction and insulation simultaneously. Quantum physics had given new life to these investigations. John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain became famous Nobel Laureates in physics for creating a semiconductor amplifier. William Shockley was then added to this list of Nobel Prize winners in physics for advancing its capabilities. The culmination of their combined work led to the creation of the transistor, a notable achievement for modern technologies.


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